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Edgar, Grahame (1901–1985)

by Patricia Hale

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Grahame Edgar (1901-1985), veterinarian and public servant, was born on 25 May 1901 at Petersham, Sydney, fourth of five children of Thomas Ferdinando Edgar, an English-born commercial accountant, and his Victorian-born wife Grace Littler, née Meeking. Grahame was educated at Sydney Grammar School and the University of Sydney (B.V.Sc., 1924). Following a year spent in China, the Philippines and North Borneo, he joined the New South Wales Department of Agriculture in 1926 as a junior veterinary officer, working in the field at Tamworth and Albury and at head office. He also served (1924-42) in the Australian Army Veterinary Corps (Militia), rising to provisional captain. On 28 November 1928 at St Paul’s Church of England, Burwood, Sydney, he married Mary Barnes Elliott.

As the inaugural McGarvie Smith Institute research scholar, in 1927 Edgar had transferred to the Glenfield Veterinary Research Station. He concentrated first on soil infections and anaerobic infections of sheep and cattle. In 1928 he proved that black-disease microbes were soil-borne in certain districts and that the bacilli remained dormant in sheep livers until activated by liver fluke infestation. Control of black disease—the cause of great economic loss to the State’s sheep industry—now rested on better control of liver fluke. In 1929 Edgar was promoted to senior research officer and in 1936 to senior veterinary research officer. He continued his work on diseases caused by anaerobic organisms (blackleg, entero-toxaemia and botulism) and began research into infectious diseases of sheep, and into parasites (mainly of sheep and cattle). In 1946 he travelled extensively overseas to investigate the latest research into animal diseases and to attend international conferences.

Back at Glenfield, in 1947 he was appointed director of veterinary research. In 1949 his long-term research into toxaemic jaundice in sheep identified the two causes as being heliotrope ingestion and chronic copper poisoning. He made a major contribution to the Commonwealth’s large-scale pasture-improvement program of the 1950s and 1960s in the form of rabbit control. The Glenfield strain of the myxomatosis virus proved more virulent than others and was distributed free on request to New South Wales graziers from 1951 (and interstate from 1961).

From the 1950s overseas scientists visited the Glenfield station, which also hosted scholars under United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and Colombo Plan fellowships. In 1952 Edgar was seconded for four months by the FAO to advise the government of Burma on an animal health laboratory. He also visited Britain to observe research on foot-and-mouth disease. When he accepted the position of assistant under-secretary of the department in 1959, his research activities ended, after seventy-two published papers. In 1962 he was awarded a doctorate in veterinary science by the University of Sydney for thirty-three of these research papers collectively titled Some Contributions to Problems of Animal Health and Production in New South Wales.

In 1961 Edgar had become director-general of agriculture, the first veterinarian to be in charge of the department. He remained a strong proponent of quarantine vigilance against the introduction of exotic disease, of rabbit control, and of Glenfield. From 1959 the department promoted and distributed the poison sodium fluoroacetate, `1080’, to supplement myxomatosis. In 1960 Edgar was a member of the Australian delegation to the 11th General Session of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and in 1963 he attended international veterinary conferences and visited research institutions in Europe, Britain and the United States of America. He retired in 1966.

Edgar gave long service to the Australian National Science Committee of UNESCO (1948-72; chairman 1957-61) and to the Australian Veterinary Association, culminating in his presidency of the State (1938) and federal (1948-49) branches. He was elected (1952) fellow of the AVA and the Australian College of Veterinary Scientists (1971) and was appointed (1963) an honorary associate of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, London. Awarded the Farrer memorial medal in 1966, he was also appointed OBE that year. He received the Gilruth prize from the AVA in 1967. Active in retirement, he became chairman (1967-85) of the McGarvie Smith Institute. He continued his involvement with the University of Sydney as a member of the faculty (1960-79) and the postgraduate committee (1962-78) of veterinary science, and as a fellow (1966-78) of the senate. A councillor from 1959 and treasurer from 1968 of the New South Wales Sheepbreeders’ Association, he was elected a life governor in 1980. He was a member of the council of the World’s Poultry Science Association (1962-70) and a director (1966-76) of William Cooper & Nephews (Australia) Pty Ltd (Cooper Australia Ltd).

Edgar’s colleagues praised him as a `public spirited, responsible and energetic’ scientist, whose expertise was imparted with an `infectious gusto and characteristic warmth’. He was remembered by Sir Hermann Black as a `big, sparkling brown-eyed man, wholesome, learned yet with the common touch … constructive, cheerful, companionable’. Survived by his wife and their daughter and son, he died on 9 August 1985 at Killara and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • U. M. L. Bygott, A History of the McGarvie Smith Institute, 1918-1992 (1994)
  • Department of Agriculture (New South Wales), Annual Report, 1926/27, 1960/61, 1963/64, 1965/66
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 Oct 1928, p 9, 24 July 1963, p 10
  • Pastoral Review and Graziers’ Record, 18 Dec 1961, p 1015
  • AVA News, 7 Feb 1986, p 14 (insert in Australian Veterinary Journal, vol 63, no 2, 1986)
  • Sir Hermann Black, A Tribute to Dr Grahame Edgar, (manuscript, 1985, University of Sydney Archives).

Citation details

Patricia Hale, 'Edgar, Grahame (1901–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/edgar-grahame-12452/text22395, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 19 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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